Editor's Note: The Hon. Harold L. Wood passed away April 14. This article, originally published Nov. 28, 2013, is republished here in his honor.
SOMERS, N.Y. - Judge Harold Wood has seen most everything in his 93 years on this planet, from living through history at Tuskegee during World War II to making history here in Westchester. However, when you ask him about his experiences, the Heritage Hills resident tends to downplay his accomplishments.
His humble demeanor was exemplified in his description of the time he spent as a staffer for a state senator in the early 1960s.
“We were all lawyers,” Wood recalled. “We were all young and married. We had all been in the Army and were all struggling like hell to get ahead.”
The grandson of slaves and born the son of a “truckman” and a housekeeper, Wood never asked for anything in his life.
“I don’t know where I got it from, but I always felt that I was going to go to college,” he said.
Growing up in Ossining, Wood liked school and fondly remembers living alongside the local immigrant community. After graduating high school in 1937, he worked his way through college.
“I went to Lincoln University.” he said of the Pennsylvania school where he got an associate’s in business, with honors.
As World War II began to rage, Wood found himself attached to the Tuskegee airfields. Alabama was a tough place for a black man to be in 1940.
“I don’t think there’s any black man who went to Alabama in 1940 and didn’t suffer from severe forms of discrimination,” he said.
However, the war years were a positive for Wood. In 1940 he married his wife, and never went overseas. After the war, he enrolled in Cornell Law School thanks to the GI Bill. His wife and their two children accompanied him there.
Making the most of his education, Judge Wood returned to Ossining, but soon moved to Mount Vernon. But he made it clear that regardless of where you are there is always a need for lawyers.
“Son, I didn’t have memorable cases. I was a lawyer. People bought houses. Their children got into trouble, they went into business and I served them,” he said. “I did what everybody else did. I raised my family.”
He began working with Westchester’s Republican Party and eventually became the senate staffer. Once again, the judge refused to attach any monumental sentiment to this stage of his life.
“Listen, I was having breakfast every morning,” he downplayed the time with a laugh.
Judge Wood certainly didn’t let the chance go to waste. In 1957 he was elected to the Westchester County Board of Supervisors—one of five from Mount Vernon. Wood served on the board until 1967. He then was elected to the Mount Vernon City Common Council and served there from 1968 through 1969.
“I held that office eight out of 10 years,” he said.
Thus, Judge Wood was succinct in the interpretation of his impact.
“I didn’t accomplish anything other than that I was there for significant votes,” he said.
While it was likely more complicated than that, he left behind his supervisor position for Family Court. But he didn’t stop there.
“I do want you to know that I was making history,” Wood said. “I was the first African American to become a Westchester supervisor. I was the first to become a Family Court judge, first to become County Court judge and eventually become Supreme Court judge.”
Otherwise, Wood’s civil rights record kept him close to home as president of the Westchester NAACP.
“Whatever work was assigned to me, I took it, but I didn’t have any national standing.”
Nonetheless, he’s proud of the groundwork laid for all those that followed and would like to see more African Americans join the Republican Party. On the other hand, this doesn’t constrain him into seeing party politics in one way.
“You can put it on the record. I voted for him twice,” he says of President Barack Obama.
Remembering Tuskegee and the actual fear of death that accompanied any trip into town, the sight of a little yellow bus that appeared every Sunday morning has never left him. Seeing fellow African Americans getting on throughout the year, he soon found out that a local Catholic Church provided an opportunity to escape the rampant racism for a sanctuary.
“I never forgot that, and it’s always said to me if people want to make a difference, they can.”
Judge Harold Wood should know from firsthand experience—even if he would be the last to admit it.